On a recent flight, I had a seat next to a younger reporter who was preparing an article about the Missionary Training Center language program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (see link below). She was kind and listened to some of my own experiences involving training there. Upon finding that I was an engineer, she said, “I find it intriguing that you are such a technical person, yet you are so centered on the religious experience. How is that?”
I responded, “I can’t excel in my design work without spiritual help. I find the work of creation fundamentally spiritual.” She asked if I could give her some examples and I told her of two, including a capacitance sensor design I was given to do in Japan.
In Over My Head
Just after college, I was given an opportunity to work at a robotics company overseas. I worked on a series of welding robots, and welding of automotive parts was a big market for us.
My employer wanted to offer a self-teaching welding robot as a product. It was taking far too many hours for our robots to be taught manually how to control the angle and position of a welding torch as the robot traveled across a complex welding seam typical of those found in car bodies. The idea was brought forward that a capacitance sensor could be used to measure the gap between the welding head and the car body. If the sensor on the teaching-head was rotated in a small circle while the robot moved, the capacitance would change with the distance to the walls of the welding seam and thus the robot could see those walls and automatically control the robot accordingly.
There was one big problem. Off-the-shelf capacitance sensing boards were very expensive and we required two in order to control for both pose (angle) and position. I was instructed to reverse engineer the vendor’s sensing board and to try to make it better, but in examining it, I found it to be well researched, well implemented and extremely sensitive. I could not see a way to make it better. When my initial efforts failed, it was suggested that I copy it, but I refused to do this, and asked for more time. I was failing and my employer was running out of patience.
A short time later, on the weekend I sat in my in-laws home, pondering and praying about what to do when I felt the gentle nudging of the Spirit, and I ‘heard’ a very basic question form in my mind. “What is capacitance?” … It’s as simple as two metal conductors with space between them. The capacitance goes up when the distance between them is smaller… I was prompted with another question: “And why can’t you see the capacitance you need to measure?” … It’s because my circuit’s input capacitance is much larger than the capacitance I’m measuring… And then it struck me at a very fundamental level what I was dealing with and I continued pondering until a circuit came to me that would make it possible to measure with far greater accuracy.
In the end, I combined the two expensive and sizable circuit boards into one tiny board that was only about 10mm x 60mm for both sensors. The new board’s tiny sensing nodes were so sensitive that I could begin to ‘see’ the frame we were to weld when the sensor was up to about 30cm (~1 foot) away. The other robotics engineers were able to use those signals to control the robot beautifully and we succeeded in releasing the product.
I am forever grateful for those simple, probing questions that enabled me to find answers that helped me far exceed my ability and expectations.
I truly need help when I am trying to be creative. This is a spiritual exercise for me.
For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.Moses 3:5
God created all things spiritually before they were realized physically on this earth. Every flower that has blossomed and every creature that has drawn breath, he created spiritually first. We are His children. We have born innately within us the desire to create as He does. Creative design, whether found in inspiring writing, complex engineering or in the shaping of a child’s heart is spiritual and makes us more like our Heavenly Father.
Note: Mission Training Center Story
As for my kind reporter friend, Kavita Pillay: Her story on the Mission Training Center will be airing on KCRW in December or early January (NEH Here and Now), and is slated for release on other large media platforms. She, together with her husband air stories on the BBC, PRI and other outlets. I will update a link to that story as it gets closer. Here is a favorite story of mine that she mentioned on the plane of her parents marrying outside of their Indian caste. Enjoy!